JACK PAAR, 85 Legendary 'Tonight' host dies

Paar, a Canton native, left late-night broadcasting during his peak.
Jack Paar, a wry, spontaneous and brainy broadcaster whose "The Tonight Show" and "The Jack Paar Program" pioneered the late-night television talk show in the 1950s and early 1960s, died Tuesday at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 85, and had a stroke last year.
Paar, a former comedian, actor and fill-in host for a mentor, Jack Benny, said his career was one of "near misses" -- until he took over "Tonight" on NBC in July 1957. A skilled improviser and interviewer, he amassed an audience of millions with fun and multitalented guests who catered to his command of eclectic interests and barbed repartee, as when he nominated the oft-married Elizabeth Taylor for the "Other Woman of the Year Award."
He left television at his peak, handing over "Tonight" to Johnny Carson in 1962 and then ending his self-titled talk show on NBC three years later.
Variety of guests
Alternately cerebral and emotional, Paar turned his programs into exercises in high tension and delight. Comedian Jonathan Winters and Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer made appearances on "The Jack Paar Program." Richard Nixon, having lost the 1960 presidential race and the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign, played a piano composition he'd written.
Paar was one of the first television personalities to tape his shows for broadcast later. He liked to watch himself at night to critique his own performance. But taping also led to interference by NBC executives, creating a rift between Paar and the network that eventually led to his permanent departure.
On Feb. 11, 1960, he famously walked off his show for a month after NBC censors edited out a segment, filmed the night before, about a joke involving a toilet.
He took his camera crews to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro, to Berlin just after the Berlin Wall was erected and to Africa to visit with Schweitzer. Paar's trips courted some controversy at the time but later were seen as efforts that distinguished his programs from others for their scope and curiosity.
Jack Harold Paar was born in Canton, Ohio, and moved around the upper Midwest because his father was a division superintendent with the New York Central Railroad.
Overcoming impediments
Paar said he had a lonely childhood, exacerbated by a stutter and then an episode of tuberculosis. His skill as a broadcaster could be directly attributed to his working to overcome those conditions.
He cured himself of a stutter by sticking buttons in his mouth and reading aloud. While in bed with tuberculosis, he spent many hours playing with the radio his father built for him. He became entranced by electronics.
Otherwise, he spent his time reading about great figures in history instead of focusing on schoolwork. He was a restless youth and dropped out of high school to work as a radio announcer.
His early career took him to Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. He started honing his act to include comic routines, which became a particular favorite of enlisted men as he toured for the Army during World War II.
After the war, Howard Hughes, then running RKO movie studios, invited Paar to Hollywood to appear in several feature films. The most notable was 20th Century Fox's "Love Nest" (1951), an early comic vehicle with Marilyn Monroe.
TV, radio appearances
As a film actor, he did not make much of an impression. His early efforts as a television host were equally inauspicious. At one time, he took over from Walter Cronkite as host of "The Morning Show," an attempt by CBS to compete with "The Today Show" on NBC.
He was more successful on radio, temporarily replacing much larger stars, such as Benny and Arthur Godfrey, on their programs.
He took over "The Tonight Show" from Steve Allen, who had emphasized quicksilver pacing and sketch comedy.
He left "Tonight" in March 1962, returning a few months later for "The Jack Paar Program." He began the new show with the line, "As I was saying, before I was interrupted ... "
He retired in 1965, tiring of the grinding work schedule. He popped back into public life for career retrospectives but otherwise tended to such business interests as owning a television station in Maine.
He was twice married and divorced to a pianist named Irene, whom he met early in his radio career. Survivors include his wife, Miriam Wagner Paar, whom he married in 1943, and their daughter.